A lifetime of mentally stimulating experiences is tied to a lower risk of dementia, even if age-related changes in the brain occur. That’s according to a large new study presented this week at the Alzheimer’s Association’s International 2019 conference.

The results suggest that even when signs of dementia are physically present, people who have the most scientifically measurable cognitive reserve – a learned ability to shift gears and cope with challenges – will fare better, wrote researcher Xiuying Qi, Ph.D., and colleagues. 

The cohort study included over 1,600 dementia-free participants. During a follow-up period of up to 20 years, the researchers studied the brains of more than 600 participants who had died (and donated their bodies for autopsy). Even when their brains showed significant Alzheimer’s and vascular changes, those who scored highest on a standardized scale of cognitive reserve had lower Alzheimer’s risk, they found.

To measure cognitive reserve over a lifespan, investigators used self-reported information about education and cognitive activities from early life through late age, along with late-life social activity and social networks.

When brain changes can’t be avoided, ongoing activity that challenges the brain may not only reduce dementia risk, but help people better “compensate for or cope with dementia pathology,” Qi wrote.

Read the study